95. The Symposium (The Dinner Party) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

95. The Symposium (The Dinner Party) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

Plot:   Socrates and his friends are invited to dine at Callias’ house where they all fall under the spell of love for the youth Autolycus. After dining and being entertained by musicians and dancers, their host asks each man to tell the party what he considers his greatest accomplishment to be. This is followed by Socrates expounding on the difference between Common and Celestial love, the former seeking selfish physical gratification, while the latter is a love of the personality and  both mutual and everlasting.

My version is Memoirs of Socrates, & The Symposium, translated by Hugh Tredennick and published in 1970 by Penguin  (0140442294)

My thoughts:  Firstly I should mention my discomfort of continually reading about Socrates and his colleagues’ lust for underage boys. It is a recurring subtext in the background of many of the Socratic dialogues which I have glossed over until now, but is now openly discussed in Socrates’ comparison of common and Celestial love, which leaves no doubt over the physical nature of using these boys ; it becomes a social aspect of life in Ancient Greece hard to ignore and condone from a 21st century viewpoint. While Socrates mentions in Xenophon’s Memorabilia that it is acceptable to be attracted to the beauty of young boys, at least he does stress that it is not noble to act on such emotions. 

Another uncomfortable factor is the position of women in this society. We rarely hear of wives, and the only woman to speak for herself in any of the Socratic dialogues so far was Theodote the courtesan in the previous read The Memorabilia (although she gives as good as she gets from Socrates). Women are seen as almost good as men but lacking judgment. Socrates even goes so far as to state jokingly that he married his wife Xanthippe precisely because she was so bad tempered that if he could learn to put up with her, he could get along with anyone. No one speaks of love for his wife or girlfriend, only their infatuation with boys.

Back to the main theme of the work, the host Callias asks each of his guests to tell the rest what he considers to be his greatest gift. Answers such as wealth, good looks, humour and recitation skills are put in the pale by the last two answers : father and son Lycon and Autolycus speak of their familial affection for each other, and Hermogenes closes the argument when he announces that he delights most in the goodness and influence of his friends, and the fact that having these qualities, they care for him.  This sounded quite touching until it is somewhat spoiled in the next chapter when it is revealed that these friends are the Gods and Hermogenes routinely worships and sacrifices to them to win their regard.

This is quite a light read compared to Plato’s dialogues, meant to be entertaining. Indeed at one point when it threatens to become a philosophical discussion, Socrates himself steers them away from serious discussion to keep the party going.

The discussion of common and Celestial love takes the penultimate chapter but does not surprise or challenge the reader and clearly takes the moral line of goodness and nobility, yet for all the fine sentiments expressed by Socrates here, the finale has the partygoers hurrying home to satisfy their individual carnal desires after their passions are inflamed by the last amorous dance performance.

Personal rating : In comparison to The Memorabilia and the novelty of a lighthearted party, I will have to give this a 5.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy slept through this quick read, tired out by an unexpected afternoon walk, so no interest here today. We’ll see how she feels about Xenophon’s discussion of hunting dogs in a upcoming read.

 Also in that year:  By 370 BC, Sparta and Athens have come to some sort of peace, while Persia’s attack on Egypt, now in its last native dynasty, is repulsed. The Greek city state of Thebes forms the Arcadian league to balance the power of Sparta, and establishes the cities of Messene and Megalopolis.

Next : Soldiering on 😉 with Xenophon and his Oeconomicus.

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